Thursday, May 13, 2010

And now, for something completely different...

A draft horse can pull a 1000 lb wagon on a level, hard road.

A draft horse can pull 50-60 times that on water: 50,000 - 60,000 lb.

You need to improve the transportation infrastructure in England to move coal and other materials into London for manufacturing and food to feed the inhabitants.  Do you build roads, or do you build canals?

In the 18th century, this was an easy decision: You built canals.

In the 19th century, despite the rise of steam power, canals were still a viable solution, partly because of existence of the functional 18th century infrastructure. And in fact, the British canals were used commercially thru WWII.

England is not a particularly flat country, so the canal system is riddled with locks - hundreds of locks, all manually operated, by the boatmen themselves. To minimize expense, the canals were not made wide. But the controlling dimensions in the canal system are the sizes of the lock chambers: 7' x 72'. These constraints spawned an unusual class of boat: the Narrowboat.

The British canals, once a mix of private- and government-owned, have been nationalized. Because of that and their usage into the 1950's, they are in remarkably good shape, and they are getting better. The narrowboats have over 2200 miles of waterways to explore. An excellent online reference, which uses Google Maps so you can zoom in and see the individual boats, locks, etc, can be found here.

Commercial traffic on the British canal system has all but disappeared, but the boating traffic is as high as ever - once working craft, the narrowboats have been embraced as recreational vessels. And like everywhere else, when you mix people and boats, you always get one common factor: the Liveaboard.

Here is a stellar example: Narrowboat Caxton:
NB Caxton is 68' long and 6'10" wide. Narrowboats are flat bottomed; Caxton draws approximately 22" and weighs 18 tons. She is constructed from steel, with a 10mm base plate, 6mm sides and 5mm cabin, and is powered by a Beta 43 diesel engine. With those dimensions, you will not be surprised to hear she has a bow thruster, although not all narrowboats do.

Despite their unfamiliar (to us) dimensions, much of the design of narrowboats will be familiar to readers of this blog - they need to solve many of the same problems.  So solar panels, heads, propane systems, batteries, inverters are all common subjects.  But foreign to us will be posts about weed hatches, tunnel lights, cratch boards and more.

To this west coast US sailor, narrowboating in England is a very different kind of boating. I have been following several of the narrowboating blogs (some listed below), and I think I can summarize the daily activites to be something like this:
  • Rise promptly at 09:00
  • Have a leisurely breakfast; go for a romp with the dogs
  • Pull pins (narrowboats are usually moored to steel pins which they drive into the soft banks of the canals) and putt 3 or 4 miles. (Note: this will inevitably involve passing thru several locks, or perhaps a tunnel, or even over an aqueduct - a bridge for boats.)
  • Moor up, and go for a romp with the dogs
  • Walk up into the local village and find a pub.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat.
On second thought, that does sound kind of familiar. Except for the bit with the steel pins.

If you have ever taken a canoe or kayak trip on a river, you will probably have noted that, except in the most urban of environments, the world at stream- or creek-level is remarkably untouched. In the case of the canals, this effect is even more pronounced, since the canals now are all government owned. The views of the countryside and the ancient bridges along your path are bucolic and spectacular at the same time. (The pictures you see here were taken by Leslie on NB Caxton, who has an artist's eye and has given me permission to display them here.)

Because of the way the licensing in England works, boats which do not have a permanent moorage are constrained to stay no more than 14 days in any one spot. So there is a lot of movement, all year long.

Narrowboaters are prolific bloggers.  Here are some I have been following:
Narrowboat bloggers make a custom of the blogroll - the links there will lead you thru a seemingly infinite universe of narrowboating.  And there seems to be an ongoing contest amongst the narrowboaters as to who has the most popular website - many feature the "UK Waterways Site Rank" badge, which shows their hit ranking day by day.

If you are curious about how the narrowboats are built and fitted out, then I recommend you read thru NB Bobcat's site.  It is all about the construction of NB Bobcat, which was just completed on May 4.

Narrowboating very much is something completely different...  and intriguing to those of us moored in deep salt water, precisely because it is so different.


Mike said...

Quite different but interesting! I bet it would be beautiful to travel those canals.

Cathy said...

One can rent those boats. I think it would be an interesting vacation.

Robert Salnick said...

Mike & Cathy: Indeed. Renting a narrowboat for a week is on my "bucket list"


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